The Woodcutters in Our Midst

By Rabbi Steven Bayar

This week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim/Vayelech (it’s a double portion), begins with a fascinating verse. Moses is speaking to all of Israel immediately before they are to enter the promised land. He says, “You are all standing here today, all of you, before God. Your leaders…every member of the house of Israel. Your children, your wives and converts in your midst, even those who gather wood and draw water….”

There is a famous story about the High Holidays by an author named I.L. Peretz entitled “If Not Higher.” In it a famous rabbi is known to disappear the Saturday evening before the High Holidays. His congregants believe he has ascended to heaven to petition God to forgive the Jews for all their transgressions of the previous year.

One enterprising non-believer decides to follow him and finds that this rabbi does indeed disappear. He goes into the woods, changes clothing and become a woodcutter for a day; cutting wood and bringing it to the poor of his town. In this guise he exhorts the most downtrodden and ill members of the town to believe in their God.

The next day, the non-believer is questioned about the rabbi’s whereabouts, “Did you see him go to heaven?” The non-believer replies, “If not higher.”

One of the many lessons in the story is that the rabbi was indeed petitioning God to forgive the Jews — but he was doing it by performing a charitable act. It is important to remember that in our High Holiday liturgy we are exhorted that “repentance, prayer and Charitable acts will avert the harshness of the decree.” If we can all become woodcutters for God — think of the profound effect on our lives and our community.

Sometimes the greatest acts of kindness and the greatest lessons to be learned are performed by the woodcutters in our midst. It is something to aspire to.